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7 Questions on Leadership with Syed Shan Ali Raza

Name: Syed Shan Ali Raza

Title: Internal Audit-Team Lead (AVP)

Organisation: House Building Finance Company

Accomplished UK Qualified Accountant and ACCA member with extensive experience in audit, accountancy, finance, external/internal audits, financial reporting, and risk management. Recognized for delivering effective financial solutions and addressing critical process gaps. Proficient in Oracle Financials, skilled in ERP implementation, and an expert in internal control assessments ensuring compliance and governance

Thank you to the 2,000 leaders who’ve generously done the 7 Questions on Leadership!

I hope Syed's answers will encourage you in your leadership journey. Enjoy!


Jonno White

1. What have you found most challenging as a leader?

As a leader in the field of finance and auditing, one of the most challenging aspects has been navigating the dynamic landscape of regulatory compliance and ensuring seamless integration of technological advancements into traditional audit methodologies. Here are the key challenges I've encountered and successfully addressed:

• Regulatory Complexity and Compliance Management: The financial industry is subject to a myriad of regulations, from banking and tax laws to international financial reporting standards (IFRS) and data protection regulations. Staying abreast of these evolving regulatory frameworks and ensuring 100% compliance across diverse sectors has been a persistent challenge. To overcome this, I have established a robust system of continuous regulatory monitoring, implemented proactive measures, and championed a culture of compliance within my teams.

• Technological Integration and Innovation: The integration of advanced technologies such as data analytics, automation, and ERP solutions into traditional audit processes posed a significant challenge. Leading the implementation of Oracle Financials and Audit Solution required not only technical expertise but also effective change management. I successfully navigated this challenge by fostering a culture of innovation within the internal audit department, ensuring that the team embraced new technologies and methodologies to enhance efficiency and accuracy.

• Leadership in a Transformative Environment: Transforming the internal audit department by introducing data analytics, a risk-based audit approach, and automation demanded strong leadership in the face of resistance to change. I addressed this challenge by effectively communicating the benefits of these transformations, providing necessary training, and demonstrating tangible results. This has not only improved the quality and impact of audit reports but also positioned the team as forward-thinking and adaptive.

• Complexity in Fraud Investigations: Leading 15 formal fraud investigations and recovering Rs 45 million required a delicate balance of legal acumen, financial expertise, and meticulous attention to detail. The complexity of these investigations, involving various sectors and legal implications, demanded a strategic and thorough approach. Successfully mitigating these challenges involved collaboration with legal experts, leveraging advanced forensic tools, and implementing robust fraud detection mechanisms.

• Optimizing Operational Processes: Identifying procedural inefficiencies and process gaps, and subsequently streamlining processes for an annual cost savings of 42%, presented a challenge in terms of change management and ensuring buy-in from the team. I overcame this challenge by fostering a culture of continuous improvement, encouraging feedback, and highlighting the positive outcomes achieved through process optimization.

2. How did you become a leader? Can you please briefly tell the story?

My journey to becoming a leader in the field of finance and auditing is marked by a combination of education, professional experiences, and a relentless pursuit of excellence. Here is a brief overview of the key milestones that shaped my leadership trajectory:

• Educational Foundation: My foundation in finance began with pursuing the Association of Chartered Certified Accountant (ACCA) qualification, a comprehensive program that equipped me with the necessary technical skills and knowledge. Additionally, completing A-Levels and O-Levels from the University of Cambridge laid the groundwork for a strong academic foundation.

• Professional Development: As an Audit Trainee at Muniff Zia Uddin Chartered Accountants, affiliated with BKR International, I gained hands-on experience in external audits across diverse industries. This role provided me with exposure to different sectors and instilled a disciplined approach to auditing standards and client requirements.

• Entry into Public Sector Finance: Joining the National Tariff Commission as an Assistant Director of Audit & Investigation marked a significant shift into the public sector. Here, I played a key role in implementing trade defense laws, conducted financial analysis for anti-dumping investigations, and contributed to crucial decisions protecting Pakistan's domestic industry.

• Expertise in ERP Implementation: Transitioning to the Central Power Purchasing Agency as an Assistant Manager in Financial Control, I led the successful implementation of Oracle Financials. This experience not only showcased my ability to navigate complex ERP implementations but also highlighted my leadership skills in optimizing financial processes.

• Internal Audit Leadership: The pivotal point in my leadership journey came with the role of Internal Audit Team Lead (AVP) at House Building Finance Company Limited. Here, I assumed leadership of the audit team, managing audits across multiple branches and regional offices. Successfully implementing a risk-based audit approach, introducing data analytics, and revamping audit reports with Power BI showcased my ability to drive transformative change.

• Strategic Leadership at the Forefront: Currently serving as the Internal Audit Team Lead at HBFC, I have continued to demonstrate strategic leadership by orchestrating comprehensive audit plans, optimizing operational methodologies, ensuring regulatory compliance, and leading the adoption of technology-driven solutions for enhanced efficiency.

• Continuous Learning and Certifications: Throughout my career, I have actively pursued continuous learning and professional certifications. Becoming an Oracle Certified Professional and obtaining certifications in security governance, ISA auditing, and advanced risk-based auditing reflects my commitment to staying at the forefront of industry developments.

• Results-Driven Achievements: Leading successful fraud investigations, recovering substantial amounts, and optimizing processes for significant cost savings have been instrumental in establishing my reputation as a results-driven leader.

In essence, my leadership journey is characterized by a combination of educational achievements, diverse professional experiences, a commitment to continuous learning, and a proactive approach to addressing challenges. Each role and responsibility undertaken has contributed to my growth as a leader in the dynamic and challenging landscape of finance and auditing.

3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?

My approach to structuring work days is centred around efficiency, prioritization, and maintaining a healthy work-life balance. Here is a breakdown of a typical workday:

Morning Routine:

1. Wake Up Early: I typically wake up around 6:00 AM to ensure a healthy start to the day.

2. Exercise and Meditation: Physical activity is crucial for maintaining focus and well-being. I engage in a morning exercise routine, followed by a short meditation session for mental clarity.

3. Healthy Breakfast: A nutritious breakfast fuels my energy levels for the day ahead.

Workday at the Office: 4. Commute and Arrival: If there's a commute to the office, I use this time for planning the day mentally. Upon arrival, I review any urgent emails or messages.

5. Priority Setting: I begin by reviewing and updating my task list. I prioritize tasks based on urgency and importance, aligning them with broader organizational goals.

6. Morning Meetings: If there are scheduled meetings, I prefer to have them in the morning when everyone is fresh. This includes team catch-ups, project discussions, or client meetings.

7. Focused Work Blocks: I allocate focused blocks of time for deep work on critical tasks. This allows me to minimize distractions and make significant progress on key projects.

8. Lunch Break: I take a break around midday for a balanced lunch, which provides a mental refresh and an opportunity to step away from the desk.

Afternoon: 9. Task Execution: The afternoon is dedicated to executing tasks, responding to emails, and collaborating with team members. I often schedule less demanding or routine tasks for this period.

10. Check-In Meetings: If necessary, I schedule brief check-in meetings with the team to assess progress and address any challenges.

11. Professional Development: I set aside time for continuous learning, whether it's reading industry updates, attending webinars, or working on certifications.

Evening: 12. Wrap-Up and Planning: In the early evening, I review the day's accomplishments, update task lists, and plan for the next day.

13. Family Time: Spending quality time with family is a priority. Whether it's dinner together or engaging in activities, this time is crucial for maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

14. Relaxation: I allocate some time for personal relaxation activities, such as reading, listening to music, or pursuing hobbies.

Night Routine: 15. Unplugging: As the evening progresses, I gradually unplug from work-related activities. This includes limiting screen time and avoiding work emails.

16. Sleep Preparation: I aim to get to bed by 10:00 PM to ensure sufficient rest for the next day. Before bedtime, I might engage in light reading to wind down.

Flexibility and Adaptability: While this structure provides a general framework, flexibility is key. Emergencies, urgent tasks, or unexpected meetings may require adjustments. Being adaptable allows me to address challenges effectively while maintaining overall productivity and well-being.

4. What's a recent leadership lesson you've learned for the first time or been reminded of?

A recent leadership lesson that I've been reminded of is the power of fostering a culture of psychological safety within a team. While the concept is not new, the ever-evolving work environment and the challenges posed by the dynamic nature of the finance and auditing industry underscore the importance of this leadership principle.

Lesson Learned:

The Importance of Psychological Safety: In a high-stakes industry like finance and auditing, where attention to detail and precision are paramount, team members must feel comfortable expressing their thoughts, sharing concerns, and admitting mistakes without fear of retribution. Creating an environment of psychological safety encourages open communication, innovation, and collaborative problem-solving.

Why It Matters:

• Encourages Innovation: Team members are more likely to share innovative ideas and solutions when they feel safe expressing unconventional thoughts without the fear of criticism.

• Effective Problem-Solving: In an industry where complex issues and unexpected challenges arise, a psychologically safe environment fosters effective problem-solving. Team members are more likely to collaborate, share insights, and collectively address issues.

• Learning from Mistakes: Mistakes are inevitable in any industry, especially one as intricate as finance. A psychologically safe environment allows individuals to admit errors, learn from them, and implement corrective measures without fear of punitive consequences.

Implementation Strategies:

• Lead by Example: As a leader, I actively demonstrate vulnerability by acknowledging my own mistakes and emphasizing the importance of learning from them. This sets a precedent for the team to do the same.

• Open Communication Channels: I encourage regular team discussions, both formal and informal, where team members can freely express their thoughts, concerns, and ideas. This open communication fosters a sense of belonging and trust.

• Recognition and Appreciation: Acknowledging and appreciating team members for their contributions, whether big or small, reinforces a positive and supportive culture. Recognition creates an environment where individuals feel valued and empowered.

• Continuous Feedback: Providing constructive feedback in a constructive and respectful manner helps individuals grow professionally. It emphasizes improvement rather than punitive measures.

Impact on Leadership Style: This lesson has influenced my leadership style by reinforcing the value of empathy, active listening, and approachability. By actively promoting psychological safety, I aim to create a workplace where every team member feels empowered to contribute their unique perspectives, ultimately fostering a culture of trust, collaboration, and continuous improvement.

5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?

One book that has had a profound impact on my leadership journey is "Leaders Eat Last" by Simon Sinek. The book explores the concept of leadership through the lens of trust, collaboration, and creating a positive workplace culture. The central thesis is that great leaders prioritize the well-being and success of their team members, fostering a sense of trust and commitment that leads to extraordinary results.

Impact on Leadership:

Understanding the Importance of Trust:

"Leaders Eat Last" emphasized the critical role of trust in effective leadership. It underscored that when team members feel a deep sense of trust and safety within the workplace, they are more likely to collaborate, innovate, and contribute their best efforts. This resonated with me deeply, especially in the context of leading teams in the finance and auditing sector, where trust is foundational to successful collaboration.

Putting People First:

The book highlighted the significance of prioritizing the well-being of team members. This approach aligns with my belief that leadership is not just about achieving organizational goals but also about ensuring the personal and professional growth of every individual on the team. By putting people first, leaders create a positive and supportive environment that fosters loyalty and commitment.

The Role of Servant Leadership:

"Leaders Eat Last" introduced me to the concept of servant leadership, where leaders view themselves as stewards of their teams' success. This perspective resonated with my leadership philosophy, influencing how I approach decision-making, problem-solving, and team development. It reinforced the idea that leaders are there to serve and support their teams rather than command and control.

Impact on Team Dynamics:

The book's insights influenced how I structure teams and encourage collaboration. By fostering a culture where team members feel valued, heard, and supported, I have witnessed a positive shift in team dynamics. It has resulted in improved communication, increased morale, and a shared sense of purpose.

Implementation in Leadership Practices:

Emphasizing Trust-Building Activities:

I incorporated trust-building activities within the team, both formal and informal, to strengthen relationships and create a sense of psychological safety.

Open Communication Channels:

Inspired by the importance of communication in building trust, I prioritized open and transparent communication within the team. This includes regular team meetings, one-on-one discussions, and feedback sessions.

Team Development Programs:

To prioritize the well-being and professional growth of team members, I introduced team development programs, training sessions, and mentorship opportunities. This ensures that individuals feel supported in their career journeys.

Leading by Example:

"Leaders Eat Last" reinforced the idea that leaders must lead by example. I strive to exemplify the values I expect from my team, whether it's a commitment to excellence, continuous learning, or maintaining a positive and collaborative spirit.

6. If you could only give one piece of advice to a young leader, what would you say to them?

I could offer one piece of advice to a young leader, it would be to prioritize continuous learning and adaptability throughout your leadership journey. The business landscape is dynamic, and effective leaders are those who remain curious, open to new ideas, and willing to evolve in response to changing circumstances. Here's why this advice is crucial:

• Rapidly Changing Landscape

• Enhanced Problem-Solving

• Stay Relevant in Your Field.

• Role Modelling for Your Team:

• Adaptability in Leadership:

• Building Resilience:

• Networking and Collaboration:

• Personal Growth and Fulfilment:

In summary, my advice to a young leader is to approach leadership with a mindset of continuous learning. It's not just a means of staying competitive; it's a commitment to personal and professional growth that will serve you well throughout your leadership journey. Embrace the journey of learning, adaptability, and curiosity, and you'll find yourself not just leading but thriving in the ever-changing landscape of leadership.

7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader, so far?

One meaningful story that stands out from my time as a leader involves a significant transformation initiative I led within the internal audit department of House Building Finance Company Limited (HBFC).

Background: Upon assuming the role of Internal Audit Team Lead (AVP), I recognized the need for a comprehensive overhaul of our audit methodologies and processes. The existing practices were traditional and manual, lacking the efficiency and effectiveness needed to keep pace with the company's growth and the evolving industry landscape.

The Transformation Initiative: I embarked on a transformative journey to modernize the internal audit department, incorporating data analytics, a risk-based audit approach, and automation. The goal was to enhance the quality and impact of our audits, improve resource allocation, and align our practices with industry best standards.

Key Milestones:

• Introduction of Data Analytics: I initiated the integration of data analytics tools to extract meaningful insights from large datasets. This allowed us to identify trends, anomalies, and areas of focus more efficiently than traditional audit methods.

• Adoption of a Risk-Based Audit Approach: I championed the shift to a risk-based audit approach, ensuring that our audit plans were tailored to focus on areas of highest risk and significance. This strategic alignment improved the relevance and impact of our audits.

• Implementation of Automation: To streamline processes, I oversaw the implementation of automation in various audit procedures. This not only saved time but also reduced the margin of error, enhancing the overall efficiency of the department.

• Revamping Audit Reports with Power BI: To communicate our findings effectively, I led the initiative to revamp our audit reports. We adopted Power BI, a powerful data visualization tool, to create dynamic dashboards that provided a clear and impactful representation of audit results.

Impact and Results: The transformation initiative yielded significant results:

• Improved Audit Quality: The integration of data analytics and a risk-based approach led to more insightful and targeted audits, resulting in enhanced overall audit quality.

• Efficiency Gains: Automation of routine procedures led to substantial time savings, allowing the team to focus on higher-value audit activities and increasing the overall efficiency of the department.

• Positive Feedback from Stakeholders: The revamped audit reports with Power BI received positive feedback from both internal stakeholders and regulators. The clear visualizations facilitated better understanding and decision-making.

• Cultural Shift: The initiative sparked a cultural shift within the department, with team members embracing a more innovative and proactive mindset. It fostered a sense of pride in delivering audits that were not only compliant but also added strategic value to the organization.

The Meaningful Impact: This story is meaningful to me because it represents more than just a procedural change. It symbolizes the power of visionary leadership to drive positive change and elevate the capabilities of a team. Witnessing the transformation unfold, seeing the team embrace innovation, and observing the tangible impact on audit outcomes reinforced the belief that leadership goes beyond management—it is about inspiring and guiding teams to achieve excellence. The success of this initiative has become a foundational narrative in the ongoing journey of the internal audit department at HBFC

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